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Tech CEO Road Rage Highlights Tensions in Bay Area

In general, folks in the Bay Area try to share the road as amicably as possible. Cyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians and cars all navigate around each other as best they can, leaving extra room where necessary and waiting their turn at stoplights and other intersections. But every now and then, someone snaps and road rage rears its ugly head. We are then forced to wonder if, in fact, there's more animosity being harbored on the road than meets the eye.

That's exactly what happened on April 16, at an intersection in Mill Valley that I drive all the time. According to reports, Kentfield resident Jeffrey Smock, who is a well-known chief executive of two Atlanta-based tech firms, was riding his bike in Mill Valley at the intersection of East Blithedale and Camino Alto when he got into an altercation with the driver of a pickup truck.

Smock and the driver reportedly argued about whether the mirror of the truck had hit Smock's bike, and the disagreement quickly escalated way out of control. Witnesses recalled seeing Smock beat the driver unconscious, with a weapon rumored to be some kind of bike accessory. The truck driver was taken to the hospital, and has since been released. For his part, Smock was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, but has also since been released. The Marin County district attorney's office has yet to decide whether it will formally charge Smock with any crimes.

This display of aggression is a prime example of the heated emotions that can get stirred up between various groups all vying for space on the same roads. At least in the case of cycling, San Francisco's recent bike improvements have caused the volume of cyclists to jump 14% just since 2011, forcing drivers to adjust.

And despite San Francisco's commitment to eliminate cyclist and pedestrian deaths within the next ten years, there were still four cyclist deaths in San Francisco last year. Bicycle accidents still take place all the time throughout the Bay Area. Often, these accidents are the fault of the motorists, but that's not always the case.

We don't yet know all the facts of what happened on April 16. I doubt we ever will. There is talk about the motorists having been drinking. Hopefully we will get insight into what made the CEO want to kill this guy. It must have been serious. Perhaps the "f bomb" was dropped or maybe a gesture. That would do it for sure.

I litigated a road rage case where a driver was followed from San Francisco to San Jose and pulled out of his car at an exit 50 miles from San Francisco by another driver. The aggressor punched my client in the nose. That ended badly that day for my client, but ultimately much worse for the man who was the aggressor. He too was a Silicon Valley exec and he ended up losing his job, paid significant dollars out of his own pocket to settle the case because insurance does not cover intentional acts, and he did time in jail. We will see what happens here.

Very often in cases of road rage, the aggressor misinterprets their victim's actions as being in some way malevolent towards them. In the case I mentioned above, the attacker had mistakenly thought that my client had flipped him the middle finger, when in fact he had not.

This incident also comes at a time when there is a lot of animosity in the Bay Area between bikers and motorists, between San Franciscans and Silicon Valley workers who work at tech companies as Smock does. Many have expressed their frustration at being priced out of rents by tech workers with deeper pockets, and having to walk into the middle of the street to catch city buses when private shuttles for tech companies are occupying city bus stops.

Many also complain that tech workers sometimes display the attitude that they are above the law. And as the Smock story unfolds, commentors have drawn parallels to the seemingly preferential treatment of tech CEO Gurbaksh Chahal, who recently avoided jail time after brutally beating his girlfriend on video and facing 45 different felony counts.

We'll see whether Marin presses formal charges against Smock. Whatever happens, Smock's actions only exacerbate the tension -- both between tech workers and non-techies and cyclists and motorists -- that permeates the Bay Area right now. There needs to be a dialogue about the changes taking place in our city, and a forum where people can feel free to express themselves without feeling attacked. Otherwise, violence will continue to spring up in unexpected places for unexpected reasons. There's no place for road rage on our roads, no matter your mode of transportation or your occupation. So let's try to have some compassion for each other out there on the road to make the Bay Area safer for everyone.

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